42: Bruce Springsteen – The River (1981)
Save perhaps “Born in the U.S.A.,” no other song is as emblematic of the blue collar-championing iteration of the Boss that sprang up in the waning years of the Carter administration. “The River” offers more visceral imagery in its comparatively sparse lyrical structure than anything on his first two releases. It’s an affecting look at the lives of real Americans, delivered matter-of-factly and without patronization or fetishizing of those generally overlooked in popular song.
Indeed “The River” helped further establish the foundation of Springsteen’s poetic grasp of the blue collar everyman’s existential dilemma as the 1970s gave way to the 1980s. Here were characters drawn from real life – both Springsteen and his sister Ginny have confirmed it to be about the latter’s early years with her husband – and placed in trying, yet relatable situations with ambiguous outcomes. Its themes of economic hardship and disparity would become a large part of Springsteen’s lyrical oeuvre on nearly all subsequent Reagan-era releases, moving him even further away from the knotty, lyrically dense poetic abstractions of his early career and deeper into social commentary.
Lyrically, the song finds the narrator switching back and forth between the idealism of youth and the harsh reality of a life lived unfulfilled. “Then I got Mary pregnant and man that was all she wrote/ And for my 19th birthday I got a union card and a wedding coat” sets the stage for the narrator’s employment concerns and the stark reality of the life sentence he has been handed (“I got a job working construction for the Johnstown Company/ But lately there ain’t been much work on account of the economy”). Given the era in which it was recorded, “The River” resonated far more than it would have had it been released prior to the oil embargo, recession and social unrest that consumed much of the country in the late-‘70s.
The song went on to be one of Springsteen’s more well-loved songs. It’s stark introductory portion, with just a haunting harmonica wail and acoustic guitar, foreshadowed much of Springsteen’s approach to the equally lyrically and thematically bleak Nebraska: “Now those memories come back to haunt me/ They haunt me like a curse/ Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true or is it something worse.” In this, the river serves to offer a personal escape from inescapable, interpersonal circumstances well beyond the narrator’s control. – John Paul
41: Whitney Houston – I Wanna Dance with Somebody (1987)
It’s easy to get swept up within the first few bars of Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance with Somebody.” Drum machines purposely click away with 808 hand claps and marimbas, while Houston feels out the scene before a tidal wave of synths quickly launch everything into an ’80s pop dream.
Despite being originally met with middling reviews from critics, “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” went on to become one of Houston’s biggest songs, her first platinum selling single in America and a massive international hit. The irony is that past criticism perhaps sheds some light on why this song is so enduring. Initial reviews pegged the song as too safe and too similar to other ’80s pop songs penned by the song’s writers, George Merrill and Shannon Rubicam. However, taken out of the context of ’80s and put into a modern mind set, “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” sounds fresh and exciting.
Houston is on top vocal form, even throwing in a few flirtatious laughs, as she dives head first into the exuberant hook: “Ooh, I wanna dance with somebody/ I wanna feel the heat with somebody/ With somebody who loves me.” She undeniably channels the terrifying yet jubilant excitement of finally being able to throw yourself out into the open while hoping that someone, anyone, catches you.
The song’s backdrop is all euphoric synths and bouncy drum machine driven rhythms, indeed standard ’80s fare to be fair, but those bright, synth horns that glide in before each chorus provide a powerful rush. A brilliant arrangement further separates “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” from its peers. Houston’s vocals dance up a down with bright synths answering with their own toe-tapping hooks. It’s pop at its poppiest, and it’s as enthralling as it is addictive.
Even if the critics couldn’t hear it, “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” was an award show favorite. Houston won a Grammy for “Best Pop Vocal Performance,” along with an American Music Award and an accolade for best music video from the Soul Train Music Awards. With ’80s nostalgia still riding rather strong, “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” still sounds relevant in today’s fast moving, pop universe. – Edward Dunbar